Gripping psychological novel about a Jewish family that takes in a Somali refugee
As with Durlacher’s previous novels, The Voice is about violence encroaching upon ordinary lives and the question of how to be a good and just person. Psychoanalyst Zelda looks back on her past, when she made a home with her husband Bor Wagschal and their patchwork family of three children. As second-generation Holocaust survivors, they are aware that the battle for freedom is never really over. Their friendship with a threatened anti-Islam activist begins to put this moral principle under strain and will ultimately destroy the family.
The novel opens cinematically, with a scene on a sunny patio in New York: Zelda and Bor’s wedding ceremony, just as the first plane crashes into the Twin Towers. This traumatic experience causes Zelda to lose her easy trust in the world, but she still opens up her home and heart to Amal, a Somali asylum seeker who becomes the family’s nanny.
Intelligent and gorgeous – the character is loosely inspired by the politician and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who used to be a friend of Jessica Durlacher and her husband Leon de Winter – she soon becomes a friend. Amal has a fantastic voice and participates in The Voice, a popular reality-TV talent show. During the battle rounds, she sheds her traditional Muslim clothing and speaks out against Islam. The fatwa and death threats that follow force Amal to go into hiding in the Wagschal family’s garden shed. This causes a rift between Zelda and her husband. Zelda wants to do the right thing, but is apprehensive about putting her family at risk, whereas Bor, a writer and lawyer, is unwavering in his support of Amal. After Amal wins the finale, Bor is murdered. Amal flees to the US and disappears from the life of the broken family.
Because the story is told from Zelda’s perspective, we are witness to her struggle to do right by everyone and keep her family together. The title, then, not only refers to Amal’s enchanting and destabilizing voice, but also to Zelda’s nuanced, unifying voice as a narrator. With The Voice, Durlacher has written a razor-sharp, gripping book that explores big issues, such as political engagement and freedom of speech, in a very personal and intimate way.